Pop Crime Scenes

Not long into George P. Pelecanos's just-published crime novel Soul Circus, protagonist Derek Strange -- black, mid-fifties, veteran private detective -- and his partner Terry Quinn -- white, early thirties, new to the business -- cruise the streets of Washington, D.C., in Strange's Chevy searching for a key witness in a case they're working. As they proceed, they argue good-naturedly about a specific lyric to a song that pours from the car's cassette deck.

"There it is, man," said Strange. "He said, 'Hug her.'"

"He said 'fuck her,' Dad."

"See, you're focusing on the wrong thing, Terry. What you ought to be doing, on a beautiful day like this, is groovin' to the song. This is the Spinners' debut on Atlantic. Some people call this the most beautiful Philly soul album ever recorded."

"Yeah, I know. Produced by Taco Bell."

"Thom Belle."

"What about those guys Procter and Gamble you're always goin' on about?"

"Gamble and Huff. Point is, this is pretty nice, isn't it?"

That exchange typifies the way in which Pelecanos peppers his prose with pop-cultural references to books, films, and, particularly, music. In Soul Circus, the third and final entry in his Strange/Quinn trilogy (after 2001's Right as Rain and last year's Hell to Pay) and eleventh crime novel overall, the author name-checks everyone from Missy Elliott to Ennio Morricone to the film Rio Bravo, including a wry, continuing riff on the actor Bo Svenson and his Walking Tall movies. Dropped like trail-marking breadcrumbs, the signifiers never come across as self-conscious or gratuitous, but instead always serve to illuminate the characters and the story.

"You can't escape it," Pelecanos, age 46, explains by phone from his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, across the D.C. line. "Our whole psyche is saturated with popular culture."

Growing up in the Washington area, he inhaled film -- Westerns, then blaxploitation and kung-fu movies -- and music, listening to the radio while working at his dad's lunch counter. "Music kicks in when your hormones kick in," Pelecanos says. "That's when I got really hopped-up on music, specifically funk and soul from the Seventies."

Later he dived into D.C.'s fabled early-Eighties punk scene, allusions to which surface repeatedly in his first few novels. Its DIY aesthetic greatly influenced and encouraged him. "Before that," he recalls, "artists -- whether it was musicians, writers, or filmmakers -- they were somebody else to me, like I could never be one of those people."

Throughout Soul Circus, Pelecanos authentically chronicles D.C.'s rampant and violent black drug/gang subculture, whose dynamics he absorbed through copious research. "You have to talk to people," he asserts, "and not be afraid. Walk into a bar and inject yourself into the conversation. Once people know that you're not some kind of cop or bill collector, they want to talk. I ride with the police and with private investigators. I sit in on some of the big trials. If you're a fiction writer toiling in this arena, it's invaluable."

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Michael Yockel